Basketball fans across the country have been entranced with March Madness all week and deservedly so. History is being made left and right. Traditional powerhouses are being blown out by small schools. It truly encapsulates the event we look forward to every year.
Fans of the sport should also be paying attention to the NBA playoff race, especially in the Western Conference. For weeks, the gap between teams ranked third through tenth in the West has been minuscule. It’s gotten a bit more spread out since the All-Star break but a bad string of games can still send a team spiraling down the standings. Luckily for the Portland Trail Blazers, its best streak of the season is still alive.
Last weeks match-ups
Portland took care of business at home against an Eastern Conference playoff team when it hosted the Miami Heat on Monday. There wasn’t much to tell in terms of struggles as Portland trailed for fewer than five minutes of this game.
There were plenty of things to be excited about, however. Damian Lillard was his usual great self with 32 points and 10 assists. Miami was playing without starting center Hassan Whiteside, so Jusuf Nurkić had a field day. He put up a monstrous stat-line of 27 points, 16 rebounds, and three blocks. The Blazers had three more players score in double figures, and ran the shorthanded Heat off the floor.
What was perceived to be the biggest challenge of the week was when the Blazers hosted the Cleveland Cavaliers on Thursday. Things were pretty tight early, but Portland fans found themselves sweating after LeBron James threw down one of the most thunderous dunks of his career over Nurkić in the first quarter.
Luckily, Portland didn’t allow itself to be fazed, and ended up with the last laugh. The Blazers took a slim lead into halftime, and started to take control of the game entirely in the third quarter. With half of the fourth quarter remaining, the Blazers led by 15. Portland had to withstand a late fourth quarter run by the defending Eastern Conference Champions, but the team held on for a 113-105 victory.
Lillard and C.J. McCollum combined for 53 points in the win. Another major contributor was Maurice Harkless, who added 17 points of his own. Harkless has gone through stretches of inconsistency all season long, so it was good for him to have another game in double figures.
Last games of the week
Portland didn’t have much trouble finishing off the Detroit Pistons on Saturday, winning 100-87, but it set itself up for a trap game on Sunday. The team had to travel to Los Angeles to face the Clippers the next day. With the Clippers being one of the teams in the West playoff race, Portland would need to play its best on the second night of a back-to-back.
As things have been for the last month, the Blazers came ready for whatever challenge faced them. The team appeared to not miss a beat, shooting 50 percent from the field, and 48 percent from 3-point range. Four of Portland’s five starters had above a +20 in their plus/minus. Lillard, McCollum, and Harkless all scored over 20 points, while Nurkić added another double-double to his resumé. Portland overcame 30 points from Lou Williams, and 24 points from Montrezl Harrell en route to a 122-109 win at the Staples Center.
While Portland has been riding this winning streak with home court advantage on its mind, Damian Lillard has had something else with him during this time. Lillard and his girlfriend are expecting their first child any day now. Since he plans on being present for the birth, Lillard’s availability may be affected at some point over the next week. Obviously, the team won’t expect Lillard to prioritize the team over such an important moment in his life.
It’s unknown if Lillard will be taking any time off after the birth. If he does, it could leave the team a little shorthanded for the upcoming week. With the Houston Rockets, Boston Celtics, and the on-fire Oklahoma City Thunder on the horizon, the team would love to have him available. If not, expect Shabazz Napier to take most of the freed up minutes. OKC has risen up in the standings in the last week, and is right on Portland’s trail. Sunday’s match-up could be a key indicator on who ends up with the third seed for the NBA playoffs.